School districts across North Carolina are months away from beginning their summer feeding programs, but local and state officials are encouraging others to become involved now.
According to the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI), more than 850,000 students were eligible to receive free or reduced meals through the National School Lunch Program last year. More than 80,000 received meals during the summer months through summer nutrition programs.
Sampson County Schools operates a summer feeding program in conjunction with any facility hosting summer school. April Jordan, director of school nutrition for Sampson County Schools, said employees are used to distributing meals.
“There’s nothing that prevents a local church or community organization from operating one,” Jordan said.
If a district wants to participate, certain guidelines have to be followed in addition to background checks since the process involves students and school grounds.
Jordan said the participation in summer feeding programs is very low. The average amount from elementary, middle and high school grade levels is about 150. Last year, she contacted several leaders in the county to see if any civic or church groups were doing anything in their areas. But she did not receive any responses.
“I know there’s a need and we try to reach out, but there’s only so much that we can do,” Jordan said.
Several years ago, the program was larger. But Jordan indicated that some students would rather visit a fast food restaurant instead of taking advantage of a free meal.
“That’s been our barrier,” Jordan said about having more nutrition locations for students. “If it’s there in close proximity, then the kids will take advantage of it.”
State Superintendent June Atkinson said the summer break should be an enjoyable time for students. DPI officials believe 90 percent of the state’s economically disadvantaged school students may have experienced hunger when they’re out of school.
“Unfortunately, that may not be the case for many students because of hunger,” Atkinson stated in a news release. “It’s important that these students and their parents are aware of the programs that could provide them with nutritious, appealing meals.”
The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) were established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure economically disadvantaged children continue to receive meals when school is not in session.
In addition to public school districts, the SFSP allows public and non-profit organizations to join as a sponsor and receive federal reimbursement for doing so. Meals must be served to people at least 18 or younger, at an approved site which includes open, closed or camp locations. Also, meals served must be provided at no charge to all children regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability.
The USDA has identified Sampson County as a high priority or “Strike Force” county and is intended to use partnerships in high poverty areas. During the previous summer, North Carolina had 166 sponsoring agencies and 2,208 summer nutrition sites. School Nutrition Services Chief Lynn Harvey said it’s a good start, but the need for sponsoring agencies is at an all-time high.
“It is critical that we partner with organizations across the state to expand the number of meal sites so we can provide meals to students who need them,” Harvey said.
Jordan said they would like to expand the program.
“When we increase our numbers, more kids are getting fed,” she said.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.